Grounds for Conspiracy:
Assessing Censorship & Resistance in Decentralisation Platforms
Kelsie Nabben. 16 October, 2020
When election and public health information is arbitrated by online platforms, we have a crisis of trust.
The fundamental democratic values of truth and trust have already been muddied in the lead up to the 2020 US Presidential elections. From doubt and alleged sabotage regarding the reliability and validity of postal voting, the worst ever Presidential debate, and ongoing foreign interference — after battling to get people to the election polls, the next challenge will be confirming the results. Online misinformation (false information), disinformation (deliberately false information) and propaganda (the deliberate, systematic spread of misinformation or disinformation), as seen in the 2016 election experience, remain a prominent national threat. Digital platforms are the theatre of war.
The latest episode of “fact-checking”, censorship and media proliferation reminds us that digital infrastructure is critical infrastructure. This piece explores the question: how is censorship and resistance treated on decentralised digital infrastructure, and does this provide a viable platform alternative for democratic freedom of speech?
Post & Re-post
On October 14th, the New York Post published a ‘Smoking Gun’ story about Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s involvement in his son’s allegedly shady business affairs in Ukraine, which President Donald Trump thanked them for. On the same day, Facebook flipped its news sharing algorithms to slow the spread of the story in order to fact check. Twitter also applied a warning that “this link may be unsafe”. Both social media platforms proceeded to restrict and block access to the NY Post article, sparking outrage on the right, repetition of calls to repeal Section 230 which protects tech companies from being legally liable for users’ content.
The consequences of censoring the article were not just proliferating its spread, but stoking conspiracy theories. This move, which was later apologised for by Twitter Founder Jack Dorsy and justified, and explained in Facebook’s statement on “Helping to Protect the 2020 US Elections” shows the power of these platforms to arbitrate information that directly effects election results. Are these the ‘roads and bridges’ on which we want society to depend?
Who decides who decides?
The book ‘In Search of Jefferson’s Moose’ asks “who’s good is good?”, amidst a discussion on freedom in cyberspace and an argument for weak intellectual property law (which the author fails to apply to the distribution of his own book). The same question can be applied to the censorship of information on online platforms.
Digital infrastructure has become the critical infrastructure on which society depends. Social media platforms are the arbiters of truth, trust and knowledge in the digital age, and they are failing. The result of serving more of what people will look at to give them ads is also Google search algorithms that bias the creation and access of knowledge online, Facebook as a portal to the internet and filter bubble for hate-speech, and self-radicalisation through echo chambers. The software architecture of centralised systems is closed-source and subjective, with opaque objectives, rules and governance standards.
Tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Google are so effective at algorithmically pursuing objectives that alter people’s behaviour that they are a powerful tool for political persuasion, but also fragmentation and polarisation. This threat of information warfare against democracy means that platform providers can’t repeal their standing to a fair and accountable position to simply reflect what people post online. They morally responsible for taking a position on content management. This means that by design they cannot be neutral at providing people with free and unfettered access to information and communication online.
Decentralised technologies offer alternative technical architecture and participatory structures to accessing information online. It is yet to be determined what the outcomes as mass scale of relying on decentralised digital infrastructure would be.
Did decentralised do it better?
Peer-to-peer technology offers a decentralised alternative to coordination of information and transactions in society, to the failures of existing, centralised digital platforms.
Significant experimentation is occurring in decentralised, open-source, online communities regarding system design, governance, and effects. Decentralised communication alternatives include SecureScuttleBut, Status messenger (on Ethereum), Delta Chat, Orbit Chat (on IPFS), and Matrix, among many other notable projects. Here, the rules of the system are transparent to users and enforceable by code. In most cases, platforms are not monetised through advertising to survive, and so far there is no winner takes all in monopolising the market.
Yet, these intended havens are not necessarily immune from the issues of digital platforms, forming their own islands and echo chambers. For example, in the federated peer-to-peer networks of ‘the fediverse’, Mastodon was developed to be a decentralised version of Twitter. The idea in federated architecture is that you choose which servers you connect to, like islands, and your community is a reflection of your choices and interests. If you don’t like a community, you can ‘exit’ by removing your ties to those people. Yet, the open-source code was ‘forked’, or copied, by the ‘Gab’ community, reportedly known for racism, sexism and numerous other phobias. In a public statement on their blog, “The Mastodon community does not approve of their attempt to hijack our infrastructure and has already taken steps to isolate Gab and keep hate speech off the fediverse”.
‘Online life is real life’
The consequences of a censorship resistant digital domain are extreme and require further investigation. A posture of censorship resistance is incredibly important to freedom of speech, freedom on information and access online. Taken to the extreme in the cypherpunk ideologies which undergird the foundations of the invention of public, decentralised blockchains, censorship resistance permits all activities, including the nefarious. For cypherpunk Timothy May, “crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be trade freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded. An anonymous computerised market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion. Various criminal and foreign elements will be active users of CryptoNet”. The consequences of ‘freedom’ through digital cash and encryption and assassination markets in online and ordinary life were expressed in more detail by Jim Bell.
Online life is undoubtedly ‘real life’. The veil between digital and physical spaces is thin, as and ideas online have the power to create ‘real-world’ consequences. The current challenges of online digital platforms demonstrate the need for a socio-technical security lens; to articulate who the community is, what threats may be present, and who is responsible and accountable for providing security to this community.
A socio-technical lens can also be applied to the design, deployment and maintenance of decentralised systems, to avoid the pitfalls and failures of digital infrastructures today and prove their legitimacy in society.
This analysis raises multiple areas for further research on decentralised digital infrastructure. This includes:
· How does information and misinformation spread on decentralised networks?
· In what ways do decentralised social media networks and forums propagate echo chambers, compared to the algorithmic objectives of centralised platforms?
· What are the implications of algorithmic governance and automation in decentralised networks?
· And my personal favourite, as it relates to my research; how is decentralised digital infrastructure manifesting in society in “ad hoc” ways, and what are the implications in terms of resilience for the referent communities?
Perhaps most of all, this piece is an attempt at misinformation inoculation, which can only occur through critical thinking.
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I’m a researcher at RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub and a PhD Candidate with the Digital Ethnography Research Centre. My work focuses on socio-technical resilience in decentralised systems aka. understanding the economic, political and social outcomes of digital systems in society.
Thank you to my colleague Chris Berg at the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub for feedback.